We live in a world that constantly strives for perfection in all aspects of life: perfect home, perfect family, perfect job. This constant hunger for faultlessness has seen stress levels rise and formed a nation that is always looking for more. However, many believe that if we all just paid a little more attention to the ancient Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, we could free ourselves of the need for a picture-perfect life, sit back, and enjoy our lives and the world around us as they really are – imperfect.
Maybe you are constantly purchasing new items, but your space just never quite feels complete. Or maybe you have previously endeavoured to live a minimalist lifestyle, but now desire a cosy atmosphere in your living space. Whatever your story is, embracing a wabi-sabi inspired way of life could make your house feel a little more lived in and most of all, a little more like home.
Wabi-sabi: Imperfection is beauty
So, what is the meaning of wabi-sabi? Established in Zen Buddhism, wabi-sabi is an age-old Japanese concept focused on accepting and embracing the imperfections that surround us. It is about acknowledging the flaws and impermanence of life and appreciating the beauty of the natural world and all that comes with it. Wabi-sabi is present in many aspects of our lives, from our relationships with ourselves and with others to the joy of freshly prepared food and the love of family heirlooms – be it an item of clothing or rustic piece of furniture.
Wabi-Sabi Interior Design
When it comes to the home, wabi-sabi cannot be bought in material possessions. Wabi-sabi can be found in the quirky details of old dinnerware, handmade furnishings that are unique to your home and natural materials such as wood and stone. With such emphasis put on updating our homes with brand new possessions, new trends and styles, we can often feel pressured to keep our homes in pristine condition. However, by channelling wabi-sabi and embracing imperfection throughout our interiors, we can create harmonious, lived-in environments that are both welcoming and homely. We cannot escape the fact that every so often we simply need to purchase new things, however, if you buy these new items with wabi-sabi in mind, you will find yourself investing in sustainable materials and unique pieces that stand the test of time.
We asked a selection of experienced interior designers for their take on the ancient Japanese philosophy and how they use wabi-sabi inspired design in the home.
Etons of Bath have been practising wabi-sabi for years given that we work with Georgian properties, many of which are listed. We are all about preserving the authentic and working with the correct materials. We love the character that comes from a wonky wall or sloping floor.
We find ways to incorporate that purple veined marble fireplace, not because you chose to have that in your bedroom but because it is part of the history of the house and should be embraced. Or we restore the slate and English limestone hallway floor, leaving the indentations and markings that are a testament to the life and soul of the house over the last 150 years. No new floor can match it.
The owner of homeware store 2 More Heads, Catherine MacCallum, thoroughly renovated her Edinburgh home when she moved in with her husband and two young children. The concrete hearth cracked slightly a year after it was installed, so she fixed it herself with Araldite and in the tradition of wabi-sabi, the Japanese philosophy that finds beauty in flaws, she decorated the visible mends with gold leaf. A beautiful example of wabi-sabi in Scotland!
I have been inspired by the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi since I first researched it for a Japanese client’s London home many years ago. I often add “imperfect” elements by using vintage and antique furniture and accessories. Where the years of wear have softened the edge of newness, where the patina of age, with its chips and cracks, adds character and warmth to a room. The best “impermanent” elements in interiors are the introduction of flowers, where their brief beauty adds a lovely, yet poignant touch to an interior. As for “incomplete”, I love to use artwork sketches where the artist explores an idea, without completing it in a final painted form. These sketches allow the viewer to add their own thoughts to the piece, continuing a relationship with the artist over what can be centuries.
Simply put, too much perfection is boring. Symmetrical proportions are essential for balance, but if applied to all elements, the space will embody a cookie-cutter aesthetic that may appeal to the masses but lacks soul and character. Compelling interiors incorporate a combination of perfect and imperfect beauty. Imperfection can be brought in by pouring concrete flooring with the expectation of eventual staining, using reclaimed woods, unevenly antiqued mirrors, distressed leathers, oil rubbed metals and honed marbles to take away the ‘Oo La La’ shine. Handmade ceramic home accessories are really on trend right now. People are shying away from factory-made looking pieces to those that are handcrafted.
We’re somewhat drawn to the ancient Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi as it embraces authenticity at its core and appreciates the integrity of natural objects and processes. Use natural materials such as wood and stone where possible, which connect with the wabi-sabi appreciation of nature. Our personal favourite is to opt for handmade items as any irregularities add individuality and elegance to the piece. In the master bathroom of our Belsize Park project, the hammered antiqued brass basins were handmade in India. A miniature replica was made to admire the hammered technique and a specialist was used to dip the brassware to achieve the desired textures and tones of metals.
While wabi-sabi is an aesthetic concept, I tend to think of it as a feeling – one where you feel calm and grounded on one hand, but also experiencing that physical, intellectual and emotional sensation that comes from being surrounded by beauty. I associate it with rituals of appreciation: of moments and the sensuality of materials and form (and their ever-changing ephemeral nature).
So, what does this mean?
It means, of course, using honest materials that show their soul and unique characteristics (wood, stone, unfinished metal, ceramics); embracing the hand in all things (love those imperfections); and simplicity – not being what Leonard Koren calls “ostentatiously austere” but just without being too mannered or too “look at me, I’m so clever/expensive”. (I will also say that those live-edge wood tables so popular a few years ago can feel just as mannered and contrived as a laminated Memphis wonder.)
It also means embracing irregularity and staying away from ‘matchy-matchyness’ (un wabi-sabi = matching lamps). It means looking lived-in, not perfect and pure: the design of home is not complete until it is being used as a place to hold and live life.
In many ways, traditional English houses have a strong sense of wabi-sabi to them!
Designers know wabi-sabi cannot be achieved with machine fabricated elements. It can be found only through the beauty of handcrafting. As a decorative artist, I am asked to create surface finishes that appear to be authentic such as crumbling plasters, rugged concrete, aged wood, rusted metals or weathered brick. It is an advantage for any designer to be able to achieve these effects yet specify the colours, patterns and degree of distressing that complete their vision. Wabi-sabi beauty can be achieved through faux treatments that incorporate details which realistically reflect exposure to the natural processes that occur over time. It is the blending of imperfection with simple sophistication that adds warmth and character to any space.
I find the concept of wabi-sabi is particularly important in a world where we pursue perfection often to the detriment of health, wellbeing and even relationships. In design terms, it is often associated with rustic and handmade furniture as well as home accessories. As an experienced furniture maker and interior designer, I can certainly understand and identify with this concept. My handcrafted furniture and home accessories are never identical and purposefully so. The lines and edges don’t follow the rules of symmetry but these quirks and anomalies are what makes them unique and alternative to mass-produced furniture.
My aim as a designer is to encourage personality and character in the home and workplace. By designing interiors that express individuality creates a stronger connection, sense of pride and acceptance of self. Unique and quirky additions to the home help with this as well as creating points of interest and sparking discussion with loved ones, friends and guests.
The ethos of wabi-sabi is to learn to love the imperfection of life in all its forms. By designing products and interiors specifically for individuals I believe we can encourage a more sustainable, less ‘throw away’ society where handcrafted pieces are cherished, looked after and passed down to future generations.
Wabi-sabi aesthetic magnifies the imperfection, naturalness and unaffectedness of the decorative elements and subdued earth colours such as white or bright grey. In this instance, less is more – items should be chosen wisely, paying attention to those that have a functional purpose. Handmade pottery, house plants, wicker baskets, linen pillows and woollen blankets are sufficient. Walls need some textures – seedy structures, concrete, bricks and exfoliated parget are the perfect complement – nowadays such effects can be achieved with wall murals, instead of a tedious renovation.
In a wabi-sabi home, space and light are the most desirable of objects, but this is not to say it has to be free of all objects or ornaments. Wabi-sabi possessions can be paired down to old items that worked just as well as new electric items. Items that have emotional value, a handmade chair or throw etc. Quality objects made to last, items can be rotated rather than given away and used seasonally.
The home should be a quiet haven, a refuge from all the noise and pollution in our everyday lives. Real lives are not like the images of homes in magazine pages, where nothing is out of place, all shiny and new and unused. Homes that have that lived-in feeling are by far the most inviting.
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese art form and asks the world to embrace its imperfections, as it sees beauty in the unconventional and impermanence. Broken down the word ‘wabi’ connotes rustic simplicity and quietness, while ‘sabi’ alludes to the beauty and serenity that comes with time and age. This trend allows you to move away from perfectly shaped objects and allows you to explore the world of beautiful, imperfect, hand-made ceramics. Upon closer inspection, the ceramics used in this property reveal textures and subtle imperfections that force you to question the balance between simplicity and complexity. A refreshing move away from showroom style homes, the wabi-sabi ambience is both unusual and charming.
Whether wabi-sabi is a new concept to you, or you’ve been on your wabi-sabi journey for a while, there are plenty of steps you can take to ensure your home design is as sustainable, thoughtful and unique as possible. By taking these design tips into account, and beginning to embrace wabi-sabi in every aspect of your life, it will ultimately inspire a happier, more fulfilling lifestyle for yourself and those around you.